Lady in White
Posted by martinteller on September 3, 2014
In 1962, nine-year-old Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) lived in the sleepy town of Willowpoint Falls with his widowed father Angelo (Alex Rocco), older brother Geno (Jason Presson) and immigrant grandparents (Renata Vanni, Angelo Bertolini). Young Frankie has a taste for the macabre, and enjoys writing spooky stories. One night he gets a taste of the real thing. While spending the night locked in the school cloakroom as a prank, he sees the ghost of Melissa (Joelle Jacobi), the first victim in a series of child murders that have plagued the town for 10 years. After his vision, Lukas is attacked in the cloakroom by a mysterious figure looking for something that had fallen in the vent. Frankie survives the attack, and although it was too dark for him to identify his assailant, the blame is pinned on the school’s African-American janitor, Harold Williams (Henry Harris). While Harold is charged with being the “Cliffside Killer”, Frankie tries to piece together the clues… and put Melissa’s restless spirit to rest by reuniting her with her mother, the “lady in white” apparition (Karen Powell) who haunts the cliff.
When my fiancée selected this movie — one of her childhood favorites — as this evening’s selection, I had no idea what I was in for. I’d never heard of the film, all I knew going in was that it ran for about 2 hours and starred Haas. I had no way of knowing I could expect such a bizarre film. One of the most unusual I’ve seen in a while. I have no idea if writer/director Frank LaLoggia intended for the movie to have such an odd tone… his only other credit at the helm is a 1981 low-budget horror flick titled Fear No Evil. Never heard of that one either, though the plot synopsis on IMDB — “High school student turns out to be personification of Lucifer. Two arch angels in human form (as women) take him on.” — is intriguing, despite the low rating.
What we have here is essentially a pretty basic ghost story, but one told through a colorful haze of quiet nostalgia. It’s part coming-of-age tale as well, which at times reminded me of Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. In fact, I wondered if that might have been an influence. Both films, for instance, draw on classic movie monster iconography. Both films also have sociopolitical subtext. Here is where LaLoggia is not nearly as successful as Erice, as the racial conflict subplot feels too much like an afterthought, although it’s not entirely graceless.
The other movie that came to mind was Obayashi’s House. This movie pops with lovely colors and surrealistic imagery, wrapped in an innocence that may or may not be kitschy by design. Some of the effects look dated, especially the rear projection shots, but the artificiality suits the material. These events are seen through the eyes of a child, whose view of the world is larger than life… and filtered through the adult version of that child, who colors his memories with nostalgia. The swamp that twice becomes a labyrinth of peril for Frankie looks fake, but in a beautiful way. The light changes and the hues adjust as menace draws near. There are simply gorgeous shots in this forgotten film, with all due credit to cinematographer Russell Carpenter (whose resumé includes the bizarro flop The Lawnmower Man and a little something called Titanic).
The film has flaws, for sure. The narration — read by LaLoggia himself — is terribly overwritten and hammy. There’s a really hacky horror plot device that I can’t reveal without spoiling, but it’s used twice here. Angelo is set up as too much of a saintly dude (although perhaps this too is being viewed through a prism of nostalgic idealization). There are a couple of dumb comedy bits involving the lovable ethnic stereotype grandparents. And like I said, the story itself is somewhat routine. But the movie has such a strange atmosphere and unexpected surprises and striking visuals that I was carried away by it. Toss in a fine juvenile performance by Haas (only a couple years after his memorable debut in Witness) and a score that’s actually really good (again, by LaLoggia himself!) and it adds up to one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Rating: Very Good (87)